“Don’t be scared.”
David Lowery is a man of utter simplicity. On the surface, his latest release may seem as straightforward as it could possibly get: from the no-nonsense title, the very minimal dialogue sprinkled throughout the film, all the way down to draping his titular ghost in nothing more than a white sheet with cut-out holes for eyes. Lowery himself might enjoy stripping everything down to its barest bones and testing his audience’s patience, but don’t be fooled, as the writer-director does the job with the most unique style and understated elegance, crafting a visual poem that is anything but ordinary.
With A Ghost Story, Lowery simultaneously transcends and elevates convention, delivering his best, most mesmerizing work to date. At its core, the follow-up to his surprise box-office hit, the critically beloved remake of Pete’s Dragon, is far more than just “a ghost story,” as the title might imply. Lowery has deliberately made it a point to say as little as possible, and instead allows his masterful visual lyricism do all the talking, to results that effortlessly soar into the most unexpected directions.
Enter C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), a young couple occupying a modest home in the sparse beauty of Lowery’s ol’ reliable Texas. The two share a quiet life together, as their story is relayed through moments of tenderness and the occasional argument about mostly nothing, as couples tend to do. C plays music and is particularly attached to a piano in their house that, to M, seems to serve nothing more as a useless piece of decoration, unable to find the same sentimental value in it as her husband strangely does.
Their relationship lays the foundation for the story, with Lowery allowing his audience an intimate, almost voyeuristic peek into their unassuming existence. The two are preparing to move out of their creaky (and creepy) old house and into something more modern, with M seemingly more eager about such a decision than he is. One day, however, C dies in an accident just outside their property, leaving M with a house full of things and painful memories of their relationship cut abruptly short. Until, that is, the ghost of C lingers, his sizable, almost cartoony presence looming over his newly widowed wife as she grieves his death and copes with the deafening loneliness of being left behind.
The audience is forced to quietly observe alongside C and his hollow, black eyes, looking over M through moments of intense pain and even slight attempts at pleasure. After yet another day at work, she returns to their house to a find a pie that a friend generously left for her. Pathetically, she devours the whole thing all by herself on the floor of their kitchen, crying as the uncontainable pain inevitably rises back to the surface, to the point where it’s clear she’s only torturing herself. The scene serves as a perfect encapsulation of the masochistic nature of humanity in times of utter desperation and hopelessness, and at this point in this film, Lowery has only gotten started, with more tricks yet up his sleeve. Mara, with the little dialogue she is given, again skillfully conveys overwhelming emotion without even having to open her mouth, portraying M’s numb emotional state with such naked vulnerability that the sight of her alone hurts.
As M finally moves out of the house and starts anew elsewhere, C himself is the one now left behind, stuck to his beloved house and seemingly still deeply in denial, lost in the solitude of such a suddenly meaningless existence. The world moves on and new tenants continue to arrive, but much like a child, he throws tantrums and passively forces each new resident out with his ghostly presence. As time hurtles forward and then backwards again, Lowery takes C – and the viewer – on a cosmic journey unlike absolutely anything else.
A Ghost Story showcases Lowery at his best, even after already terrific turns with his previous Mara-Affleck collaboration Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon. With A Ghost Story, he presents a simple idea with simple characters at the center, almost as if his own film is in disguise as something familiar. That is, until he dives head first and commits to his ambitiousness on a level that surprises and thrills in equal, overwhelming amounts, making for a film that is quite simply breathtaking beyond expectation. Like the most staggering of emotions, the burst of creativity buried deep in the heart of A Ghost Story is bold and difficult to properly convey, but that’s precisely what makes it so affecting and memorable, even long after it’s over. Nothing lasts forever and letting go may be hard to do, but there’s still nothing quite like the magic of those fleeting moments of pure, unadulterated emotion, reminding us of our own perfectly imperfect mortality.